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USA 2004
Directed by
Wayne Kramer
102 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bruce Paterson
3.5 stars

The Cooler

Synopsis: William H. Macy is Bernie, a ‘cooler’ or gambler with contagiously bad luck, employed by a Vegas casino manager, Shelly (Alex Baldwin). Things begin to change when lady luck enters Bernie’s life in the form of waitress, Nathalie (Maria Bello).

The Cooler is largely set in the ironically named Golden Shangri-La casino in Vegas, run by Shelly (Alec Baldwin). While Shelly envisages it as the utopia for ‘old-school’ gamblers, the obnoxious noise and colour of people losing their happiness permeates the place. Shelly has employed old crony Bernie (William H, Macy) as the casino’s cooler. Bernie’s bad gambling luck is so contagious he only has to stand near the table to turn a punter’s fortune to ashes. The film starts as Bernie has only a few days left before his debts to Shelly are paid and he leaves for good. Shelly relies on Bernie to keep his profits high as he tries block efforts by management to renovate the place to suit he tastes of the new breed of suburban gambler. Things start to go awry when waitress Nathalie (Maria Bello) seduces Bernie, his luck changes and he can no longer cool the tables.

While the plot-line of this film is a good one, the real draw-card for me is William H Macy. He has been a popular choice for sad-sack losers in search of a break in films such as Fargo, Welcome to Collinwood and Stealing Sinatra While he has recently sworn off the loser roles, Macy says The Cooler still attracted him because it was essentially a love story.

He’s right. And it’s a love story with a surprising punch. There are more films than you can poke a stick at with unlikely duos of middle-aged men and young beauties. But Macy and Maria Bello work together in unexpected ways. The script and direction give life and honesty to the chemistry between them. Their energetic fumbling through relatively explicit yet humorous sex scenes also paves the way for the emotionally intimate relationship between them.

The fly in the ointment is the odious Shelly and his complex relationship with Bernie. Bernie has become so used to being the loser, that he doesn’t even blame Shelly for kneecapping him over an old debt, leaving him with a permanent limp. Shelly is superficially the old-school casino host, but his character develops into an ugly mix of calm rationality and cold violence as the film unfolds.

The dynamic relationships between the main and peripheral characters are the bread and butter of the film. There might be perhaps a few too many ideas being explored, which distract from the theme of luck, but overall it’s a rewarding story about the transforming power of love in unlikely places, albeit with a slightly questionable end. It also has some great jazzy background music thanks to Marc Isham's typically fine score.




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